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Jul 19, 2018, 07:07 AM
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Author Topic: NEWS ON SPACE AND OUR PLANETARY SYSTEM  (Read 328508 times)
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Darja
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« Reply #1710 on: Jun 19, 2018, 04:32 AM »

Scientists find 121 giant planets that might host habitable moons

While we’re all thinking of finding alien life on other planets, scientists are looking for life on alien moons.

ZME
6/19/2018

When humans first thought about extraterrestrial life, they thought of places like the Moon or Venus. Modern studies quickly showed that those places are currently uninhabitable, so alien life projections started focusing on Mars. Mars was potentially habitable in the past, but not so much now. Instead, the most likely places in our solar system to host life (outside of Earth) are frozen moons like Europa.

Even though satellites like Europa are frozen on the surface, the stress and friction from their planet’s gravitational pull generate great heat beneath the surface, and astronomers estimate that these places host liquid oceans beneath the surface — liquid water where life can develop. So this type of frozen moon around giant planets are quite interesting for astronomers, which is why this finding is so important.

In a paper forthcoming in The Astrophysical Journal, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, and the University of Southern Queensland have identified more than 100 giant planets that might host this type of moon, by scouring through data from the Kepler telescope. To make matters even more attractive, all these giant planets have orbits in the so-called habitable zone — not too close, and not too far from their parent star.

    “There are currently 175 known moons orbiting the eight planets in our solar system. While most of these moons orbit Saturn and Jupiter, which are outside the Sun’s habitable zone, that may not be the case in other solar systems,” said Stephen Kane, an associate professor of planetary astrophysics and a member of the UCR’s Alternative Earths Astrobiology Center. “Including rocky exomoons in our search for life in space will greatly expand the places we can look.”

Researchers have only found the planets themselves and have no direct information about any potential moons. However, from what we’ve seen in our own solar system, this type of planet does tend to have several moons.

Scientists speculate that if they do exist, some of these moons may be prime areas to look for extraterrestrial life because they get energy not only from their parent star but also from their parent planet.

This will help scientists develop new, better telescopes, that could look for potential biological signatures on these moons — yet another stepping stone on our long search for alien life.

    “Our follow-up studies will help inform future telescope design so that we can detect these moons, study their properties, and look for signs of life,” said Michelle Hill, an undergraduate student at the University of Southern Queensland who is working with Kane and will join UCR’s graduate program in the fall.

Journal Reference: Exploring Kepler Giant Planets in the Habitable Zone, arXiv:1805.03370 [astro-ph.EP] arxiv.org/abs/1805.03370


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Darja
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« Reply #1711 on: Jun 20, 2018, 04:29 AM »

Scientists collect interstellar dust that formed the Earth and solar system

ZME
6/20/2018

Researchers have discovered an enormous body of interstellar dust that predates the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago. The findings might revolutionize our understanding of how the solar system came to be, as well as all other planetary bodies.

It sounds unbelievable, but some of the original interstellar dust that went to form the sun, Earth, and all the other planets in the solar system can be still be found floating around in our neighborhood, even hitting our atmosphere from time to time. Presolar dust particles can no longer be found in the inner solar system, as it was long ago destroyed, reformed, and reaggregated in multiple phases. However, presolar dust can still be found in the outer solar system, specifically in some comets.

When these comets pass close enough to the sun, they release presolar dust that can reach Earth’s orbit and settle through the atmosphere, where it can be collected and later studied. Dr. Hope Ishii of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and her colleagues used electron microscopy to study such dust particles, as well as data gathered from the Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) aboard the Cassini Saturn orbiter during its two-decade mission.

The presolar dust particles in question are actually called GEMS – or ‘glass embedded with metal and sulfide’. They’re less than one hundredth the width of a human hair in diameter and contain a variety of carbon known to decompose when exposed to even relatively gentle heating.

An electron micrograph of an interplanetary dust particle of likely cometary origin. Credit: Hope Ishii

Ishii and colleagues write that the GEMS likely formed in the interstellar medium due to grain shattering, amorphization, and erosion from supernovae shocks, then later went through subsequent periods of aggregation. Irradiation likely provided enough energy for the amorphous silicates which comprise the dust to absorb small amounts of metal atoms, the authors reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “With repeated cycling in and out of cold molecular clouds, mantled dust and any aggregates were repeatedly and progressively partially destroyed and reformed. Cassini mission data suggest the presence of iron metal in contemporary interstellar dust,” the researchers wrote in their study.

This first generation of GEMS aggregated with crystalline grains that were likely transported from the hot inner-solar nebula, creating second-generation aggregates. Later this 2nd generation of aggregates was likely incorporated into small, icy cometary bodies.

The researchers concluded that the grains they studied represent surviving pre-solar interstellar dust that formed the very building blocks of planets and stars. As such, they provide unique insight into a pre-solar system environment, ultimately telling us how our planet and others like it came to be. We only have a rough picture of how our solar system formed from a huge disk of dust and gas, and these little grains could be the missing pieces that complete the puzzle. In the future, the researchers plan on collecting more comet dust, particularly that sourced from more well-protected comets that pass by the sun.


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Darja
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« Reply #1712 on: Jun 21, 2018, 04:36 AM »

Scientists directly image particle jet emitted by supermassive black hole devouring a star

ZME
6/21/2018

Nearly 150 million light-years away from Earth, two distant galaxies are colliding in a tragic dance that will ignite billions of suns like fireworks. At the heart of one of these galaxies, however, there’s another violent event playing out. For the first time, astronomers have directly imaged a supermassive black hole ejecting a fast-moving jet of particles as it shreds a passing star.

Supermassive black holes aren’t your ordinary stellar-variety black holes whose mass is just a couple of times that of our sun. Instead, these objects can have millions or, in some extreme cases, billions of solar masses. Virtually every galaxy has a supermassive black hole lurking at its center, which directly influences its development. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is no exception.

A supermassive black hole’s huge gravitational pull will actively draw material from its surroundings, but not all of it will be gobbled in at once. Instead, the black hole will form a rotating disc around it and launch superfast jets of particles from the poles of the disk at nearly the speed of light.

In 2005, astronomers working with the William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands identified a bright burst of infrared emission coming from the nucleus of one of the colliding galaxies in Arp 299. A bit later, the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) revealed a new, distinct source of radio emission from the same location.

    “As time passed, the new object stayed bright at infrared and radio wavelengths, but not in visible light and X-rays,” said Seppo Mattila, of the University of Turku in Finland in a statement. “The most likely explanation is that thick interstellar gas and dust near the galaxy’s center absorbed the X-rays and visible light, then re-radiated it as infrared,” he added.

Continued observations with the VLBA and other radio telescopes confirmed the presence of a source of radio emissions expanding in one direction, typical of a jet, just like scientists expected.

The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) is a massive interferometer consisting of 10 identical antennas on transcontinental baselines spanning up to 8,000 km, from Mauna Kea, Hawaii to St. Croix, Virgin Islands. These multiple radio antennas separated by thousands of kilometers allow the VLBA to gain an incredible resolving power — the ability to see fine detail — which is required to observe the features of an expanding object from millions of light-years away. The VLBA observes at wavelengths of 28 cm to 3 mm (1.2 GHz to 96 GHz) in eight discrete bands plus two narrow sub-gigahertz bands, including the primary spectral lines that produce high-brightness maser emission.

According to the researchers, the jet is emitted by a supermassive black hole, located at the heart of one of the colliding galaxies pairs called Arp 299. The black hole is about 20 million times more massive than the Sun and is currently shredding a star over two times as massive as the Sun, that was unfortunate enough to drift too close to the gargantuan monster. The superfast jet of charged particles emitted by the black hole packs a staggering 125 billion times the amount of energy the sun releases per year.

Only a small number of such stellar deaths called tidal disruption events, or TDEs, have been detected. The bursts propagate all over the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio, visible, and UV all the way to X-ray and gamma-ray intervals.

    “Never before have we been able to directly observe the formation and evolution of a jet from one of these events,” said Miguel Perez-Torres, of the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Granada, Spain.

Because the dust around the black hole absorbed any visible light, this particular TDE might be indicative of a hidden population of similar events — the tip of the iceberg, if you will. Mattila and Perez-Torres hope to discover many more such events and learn from them by directed infrared and radio telescopes to candidate sources.

TDEs are important to astronomy since they provide unique insight into the formation and evolution of jets in the vicinity of massive objects. Such events are likely common in the distant universe and studying them will advance our understanding of galaxies that developed billions of years ago.


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« Reply #1713 on: Jun 22, 2018, 04:43 AM »

Mars’ huge dust storm is now a “global” storm

ZME
6/22/2018

Mars hasn’t been enjoying the fairest weather as of late. A massive dust storm has engulfed Perserverence Valley, pinning NASA’s Opportunity rover in place; all the dust is blocking out sunlight, preventing the bot from recharging its batteries — so much so that ground control fears it might freeze out, as its dwindling power supply can’t feed the rover’s inbuilt heaters.

According to NASA, the weather is only getting worse. The dust storm has grown in size and is inching in even on the Curiosity rover, half a Mars away from the beleaguered Opportunity. The storm has officially become a “planet-encircling” or “global” dust event.
Mars Stormborn

NASA reports that dust is rapidly and steadily settling down on Curiosity. The quantity of dust settling on the rover has more than doubled over the weekend, they note. The storm’s light-blocking factor, or “tau”, has grown to over 8.0 above Gale Crater (where Curiosity is currently rovering about) — the highest value the bot has ever recorded during its mission. For context, Opportunity is experiencing 11 tau, a value high enough to prevent its instruments from making any accurate measurements.

However, NASA is confident Curiosity will remain unaffected by the grime. Unlike its cousin, it draws power from a nuclear reactor, so the lack of light isn’t really a big issue. Curiosity’s cameras are having a hard time, however, as the lack of light means it has to use long exposure times. NASA is having it point its cameras down at the ground after each use to reduce the amount of dust blowing at its lenses.

However, there’s a silver lining. Because Curiosity can keep functioning in the storm, NASA hopes to use the rover to understand the phenomenon better. One of the main questions they want to answer is why some Martian dust storms remain small and stall before a week has passed, while others grow and grow and last for months.

    “We don’t have any good idea,” said Scott D. Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, leading Curiosity’s dust storm investigation.

Together with the craft in orbit around Mars, Curiosity will collect data on the storm to help patch up our understanding.

Mars dust storm.

This animation, pieced together from pictures taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera, shows the weather darkening over Mars. The rover is currently standing inside Gale Crater, and peeking its camera over its rim. The photos were taken over a few weeks, with the first one snapped before the storm appeared.
Image credits NASA.

The images below were taken roughly 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away from the storm. The haze is about six to eight times thicker than what’s usual for this time of the Martian year, NASA estimates.

Dust storms on Mars are actually quite commonplace. Surprising for a dusty planet, I know. They’re especially frequent in the southern hemisphere during both spring and summer months (Mars’, not the ones on Earth). These are the months during which Mars is closest to the Sun, and the temperature imbalances in the atmosphere generate winds that mobilize dust grains (this dust is about as fine as talcum powder). Carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) embedded in the planet’s polar ice caps also evaporates during these months, making the atmosphere extra-thick — this increased pressure helps suspend dust in the air. Dust clouds have been spotted up to 60 kilometers (40 miles) high.

However, Martian dust storms don’t usually cause a ruckus. They tend to hang out in a confined area and dissipate within a week. By contrast, the current storm is bigger than North America and Russia combined, according to Guzewich. It’s even more impressive when you consider the size of Mars relative to Earth:
Mars-Earth.

Mars (diameter 6790 kilometers) is only slightly more than half the size of Earth (diameter 12750 kilometers). The image shows the true relative size between the two planets.
Image credits Viking Orbiter Views of Mars, NASA SP-441, p. 14.

The size difference is one of the elements that allows Martian dust storms to grow to such immense sizes. Earth’s gravitational pull is almost double that of Mars, which helps settle the dust. Vegetation also binds the soil, preventing particles from getting airborne, and rain washes whatever gets in the atmosphere back down.

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« Reply #1714 on: Jun 23, 2018, 05:31 AM »

NASA updates its plan to deflect dangerous asteroids

ZME
6/23/2018

An impact with an asteroid isn’t the likeliest thing to happen in the universe. However, despite its low probability, such a scenario is a high-consequence event which requires “some degree of preparedness,” according to the authors of the new 18-page document titled the “National near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan”.

NASA has so far cataloged about 18,310 objects of all sizes, of which just over 800 are 140 meters or bigger. A 2005 congressional mandate tasked the agency with tracking 90 percent of the near-Earth objects larger than 140 meters. NASA is just one-third of the way there, however.

But while big asteroids, such as the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, are absolutely brutal, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be worried by anything smaller. For instance, a 40- to 60-meter asteroid that exploded over Tunguska, Russia, leveled 2,000 square kilometers of forest. If the same were to happen over New York City, it would cause millions of casualties. Today, an asteroid of this size can’t be detected with more than a couple weeks of warning — this is why the new NASA master plan is so important.

This year, an asteroid the size of a football field came mighty close to Earth, whizzing past our planet at about half the distance from here to the moon. The really scary part is that the asteroid was detected a mere couple of hours before the flyby.

The new document establishes five strategic goals to reduce the risk of an asteroid strike. The first is improving capabilities for detecting and tracking asteroids by investing in new telescopes and computers. Secondly, NASA would like to see better modeling and simulation of impacts in order to assess potential risks. This kind of information would then be disseminated to able government bodies in order to form contingency plans and quick-response missions. Increased international cooperation is also outlined as an important strategic step in improving the planet’s security in the face of an asteroid threat.

The document also lists some potential deflection plans in the event that NASA does, in fact, detect a dangerous asteroid on a collision course with Earth. It’s worth noting that were this to happen today, there wouldn’t be much we could do.

According to the authors of the new plan, it would take as much as ten years to deflect a killer asteroid — a couple of years to design and build a spacecraft specifically designed to rendezvous with the asteroid, and another couple of years for the spacecraft to reach the cosmic body.

To deflect an asteroid or comet, a powerful robotic spacecraft would be put on a collision course with the object in the hope of changing its path. Another option is launching a nuclear device — not to blow it up but rather to superheat it enough so that the blown-off material is enough to divert the asteroid.

Meanwhile, scientists hope to learn about asteroids with some upcoming very important missions. NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft is expected to travel to the asteroid Bennu later this year and return samples in 2023, while Japan’s Hyabusa 2 is close to asteroid Ryugu, with samples to be returned in 2020.


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« Reply #1715 on: Jun 25, 2018, 04:20 AM »

Scientists find baby exoplanets using a completely new method

6/25/2018
ZME

Using a novel method to measure inconsistencies in gas flows, researchers were able to identify three newborn exoplanets that would have been otherwise impossible to locate.

Alien hunters have made terrific strides in the past decade: with the help of the Kepler Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered 2,342 confirmed exoplanets and revealed the possible existence of up to 2,245 others. Some of these have characteristics that make them Earth-like in terms of composition, mass, and size, and a fraction is possibly habitable given the orbit around their parent stars.

One such planet orbits Proxima Centauri, which is only 4.2-light-years away. The newfound world, known as Proxima b, is about 1.3 times more massive than Earth, suggesting that the exoplanet is a rocky world. The planet is also in the star’s habitable zone, just 4.7 million miles (7.5 million kilometers) from its host star.

To find exoplanets like Proxima b, scientists employ the so-called transit method, which involves measuring dips in a star’s brightness. On the off-chance that our telescopes are aligned in the same plane with a distant star and its planets, it’s possible to infer the presence of exoplanets from the star’s minute blips. These changes in brightness are characterized by very small dips and for fixed periods of time, usually in the vicinity of 1/10,000th of the star’s overall brightness over the time course of a few hours.

The transit method has proven extremely useful for alien hunters and has been used to find most exoplanets thus far. It has one major drawback, though: planetary transits are observable only when the planet’s orbit happens to be perfectly aligned with the astronomers’ line of sight.
These gaps in the rings of gas and dust could be used by forming planets. Credit: B. Saxton NRAO/AUI/NSF.

These gaps in the rings of gas and dust could be used by forming planets. Credit: B. Saxton NRAO/AUI/NSF.

This is why two new studies published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters (1 and 2) are such a big deal. The authors detailed a completely new method they used to detect not one, but three new exoplanets.

The two team of astronomers initially pointed the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) — the world’s most powerful telescope for observing molecular gas and dust — towards HD 163296, 4-million-year-old star roughly 330 light-years from Earth.

As expected, the very young star is surrounded by a protoplanetary disc of gas and dust, which provides the seeding material for new planets to form. By the looks of it, HD 163296 already has at least three young planets orbiting around it.

The novel method doesn’t identify the planets directly but rather infers their existence by measuring inconsistencies in gas flows around them. Just like you can infer the presence and characteristics of a rock by the ripples it makes when thrown in a pond, so can planets be identified from the patterns of gaseous motion within the protoplanetary disc.

Specifically, the researchers looked for subtle changes in the levels of carbon monoxide (CO) in high-res images captured by ALMA.

    “Measuring the flow of gas within a protoplanetary disc gives us much more certainty that planets are present around a young star,” Christophe Pinte, lead author on one of the two papers, said in a statement.

Pine and colleagues used this method to identify a planet which orbits about 39 billion kilometers (24 billion miles) away from HD 163296. Meanwhile, another team at the University of Michigan located two other planets located roughly 12 billion and 21 billion kilometers (7.4 billion and 13 billion miles) from the star. All three planets seem to be as massive as Jupiter.

Researchers hope that in the future their method will be employed on other protoplanetary discs. The technique is particularly promising for pinpointing very young planets — the kind of observations that could provide invaluable insight into how our solar system and planet Earth formed.


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« Reply #1716 on: Jun 26, 2018, 04:20 AM »

Juno images Jupiter’s dreamy clouds à la Van Gogh

Ecowatch
6/26/2018

The picture was snapped by the Juno spacecraft on May 23, 2018, during the spacecraft’s 13th close flyby of Jupiter. At the time, Juno was about 9,600 miles from the planet’s cloud tops.

According to NASA, the darker clouds are found deeper in the Jovian planet’s atmosphere while the bright clouds are found higher up into the atmosphere. These bright clouds are likely made of ammonia or ammonia and water, mixed with some yet unknown chemical ingredients. The bright oval at the bottom center of the picture — the one which resembles a cosmic eye — appears uniformly white to ground-based telescopes. From very close, however, we can resolve fine-scale features within the weather system. Just like in the case of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, winds probably slow down greatly toward the center, where there doesn’t seem to be that much motion compared to the exterior of the eye.

Remarkably, the image was not processed by NASA. Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran were responsible for the final image, who used data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam imager. Check out more pictures like this along with unprocessed data that anyone can use at the Juno Mission homepage.

This month, Juno was supposed to reach the climax of its mission by diving into the gas giant. NASA, however, decided to offer a three-year extension to the mission which means more opportunities for both science and eye candy such as the view feature here. Juno’s end of prime operations is now expected in July 2021, with data analysis and mission close-out activities continuing into 2022.

    “This is great news for planetary exploration as well as for the Juno team,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “These updated plans for Juno will allow it to complete its primary science goals. As a bonus, the larger orbits allow us to further explore the far reaches of the Jovian magnetosphere — the region of space dominated by Jupiter’s magnetic field — including the far magnetotail, the southern magnetosphere, and the magnetospheric boundary region called the magnetopause.”

    “We have also found Jupiter’s radiation environment in this orbit to be less extreme than expected, which has been beneficial to not only our spacecraft, but our instruments and the continued quality of science data collected.”


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« Reply #1717 on: Jun 27, 2018, 04:25 AM »

The International Space Station just launched a harpoon-touting satellite to keep it safe from space junk

6/27/2018
ZME

The International Space Station (ISS) has just deployed its own robotic groundskeeper — christened RemoveDEBRIS, the small cubesat will work to clean Earth’s orbit of wreckage and debris.

Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation might get flashbacks of the Borg cube upon seeing the little satellite just launched by the ISS. But fret now, fans of old-timey sci-fi; although it carries a harpoon, this craft comes in peace. RemoveDEBRIS — the result of a collaboration between Airbus, Surrey Satellite Technology, NanoRacks and a slew of other companies — will whizz about the ISS, spearing debris left and right to tidy up our orbit.

Cube-at-arms

We’re not the tidiest species around if we’re being honest. We’ve actually managed to (somewhat-impressively) litter all the way out to space. It’s already full of decommissioned satellites, rocket wreckage, shards of solar panels, and flakes of paint. And we are still blasting stuff up there, making it increasingly crowded.

Space may sound like the ultimate rug to brush your mess under — but it’s not. At the speeds involved, even the flakes of paint currently orbiting Earth are massive threats. As Einstein quoth, “E=mc2“, and although these flakes are light (small values for ‘m’), they go very very fast, meaning they act like hypersonic projectiles with a lot of force behind them (‘E’). Luckily, we’ve yet to see a catastrophic collision between one our craft and such debris.

Not ones to bet on luck for long, however, NASA sent RemoveDEBRIS to — you’ll never guess — remove some of this debris. The cube-shaped satellite was recently launched towards the ISS aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. In its first test since arriving, the 100-kilogram (220 pounds) cubesat was just released from the station via the robotic arm Canadarm2, the agency writes. Researchers at the University of Surrey, England, have successfully established contact with the satellite after release. Surprisingly, the satellite is one of the biggest payloads the ISS ever deployed.

Over the next couple of months, engineers will monitor RemoveDEBRIS and run tests to ensure everything is functioning correctly. However, NASA doesn’t expect to break out the satellite’s harpoon until later this year. Beyond this sharp implement, RemoveDEBRIS also carries a net to catch junk with, and a large sail meant for breaking or eventual deorbiting — and both instruments need to be tested separately. The current timetable for these tests, as listed by the University of Surrey, is:

    A debris-catching net experiment, developed at Airbus’ site in Bremen, Germany, will be conducted in October. The main RemoveDebris spacecraft will release a small cubesat and let it drift away to a distance of about 5 to 7 m (16 to 23 feet). Then, the main spacecraft will eject the net in an attempt to capture it.
    In December, RemoveDEBRIS will test vision-based navigation technology developed by Airbus in Toulouse, France. The technology will use a set of 2D cameras and a 3D lidar technology to track the second cubesat as it floats away from the main satellite.
    In February 2019, the last of Airbus’ three experiments will take place. RemoveDEBRIS will fire a pen-size harpoon into a panel that will deploy from the main spacecraft attached to a boom.
    Sometime during March 2019, RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft will deploy a drag sail, developed by the Surrey Space Centre, which will speed up the satellite’s deorbiting process.

The drag sail is especially important, according to the agency. Via its use, the cubesat will avoid becoming the irony of becoming debris itself — the sail will slow down RemoveDEBRIS enough for it to fall back to Earth.

Ideally, RemoveDEBRIS will only be the first in a series of harpoon-wielding, net-totting janitor satellites. According to the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), there are over 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball, and there are likely too many tiny bits for us to reliably track. It’s such a huge problem that researchers are even considering giving the ISS its own battery of laser weapons, just to keep it safe.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QUhCLTfXf0


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« Reply #1718 on: Jun 28, 2018, 04:37 AM »

NASA orbiter snaps gorgeous ‘blue’ dune on the Red Planet

ZME
6/28/2018

This big Martian due looks blue in this enhanced image. It is, in fact, gray. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.

A recent image taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) features a gorgeous electric blue dune on the Red Planet. That’s surely odd given the planet’s reputation for wearing all-red. Alas, this is an enhanced color image and the dune’s appearance is due to its different composition from the surrounding sand.

The scenery was captured by MRO’s HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera — the most sophisticated and powerful camera deployed outside Earth. HiRISE takes three different images of the same area, then adjusts them in red, blue, and green using infrared tech. This is done so MRO can observe details on Mars that would have otherwise been obscured by dust. With its sharp ‘eye, MRO can make out objects as small as a coffee table from an altitude ranging from 155 miles to 196 miles (250 to 316 km).

In order to increase contrast, the photos are given min-max stretches. Technically, the dunes we’re seeing are actually gray but appear turquoise blue after such a stretch because most of Mars is red (I explained previously why).

So, sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but this isn’t some alien oasis.

The dune was found in Lyot Crater where most such dunes are crescent-shaped because they face the wind. NASA has no answer yet as to why the blue dune is more abstract than others, though.


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« Reply #1719 on: Jun 29, 2018, 04:17 AM »

Enceladus “the only body besides Earth to satisfy all of the basic requirements for life,” Cassini reveals

ZME
6/29/2018

Data beamed back by the Cassini spacecraft reveals that Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, isn’t shy about blasting large organic molecules into space.

Hydrothermal processes in the moon’s rocky core could synthesize organics from inorganic precursors. Alternatively, these processes could be transforming preexisting organics by heating, or they could even generate geochemical conditions in the subsurface ocean of Enceladus that would allow possible forms of alien life to synthesize biological molecules.

Mass spectrometry readings beamed back by NASA’s Cassini craft show that Enceladus is bursting with organic molecules. The moon’s icy surface is pockmarked with deep cracks that spew complex, carbon-rich compounds into space. Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) say these compounds are likely the result of interactions between the moon’s rocky core and warm waters from its subsurface ocean.

Why so organic?

    “We are, yet again, blown away by Enceladus,” said SwRI’s Dr. Christopher Glein, co-author of a paper describin the discovery.

    “Now we’ve found organic molecules with masses above 200 atomic mass units. That’s over ten times heavier than methane. With complex organic molecules emanating from its liquid water ocean, this moon is the only body besides Earth known to simultaneously satisfy all of the basic requirements for life as we know it.”

The Cassini mission, a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency, is widely-held to be one of the most ambitious space exploration missions we’ve ever embarked upon. Launched on October 15, 1997, Cassini spent some 13 years studying the gas giant and its moons. The craft also flew by Venus (April 1998 and July 1999), Earth (August 1999), the asteroid 2685 Masursky, and Jupiter (December 2000), before settling in on Saturn’s orbit on July 1st, 2001.

On September 15, 2017, NASA de-commissioned the aging craft with a bang: they deorbited Cassini, letting it fall towards Saturn’s core and burn up in its atmosphere.

However, the wealth of information this tiny craft beamed back from its travels is still giving astronomers a lot to work on. Before its fiery demise, Cassini sampled the plume material ejected from the subsurface of Enceladus. Using its Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) and the SwRI-led Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) instruments, the craft analyzed both the plume itself and Saturn’s E-ring — which is formed by ice grains from the plumes trapped in Saturn’s gravity well.

During one of Cassini’s particularly close flybys of Enceladus (Oct. 28, 2015), the INMS detected molecular hydrogen in the moon’s plume ejections. Previous flybys also revealed the presence of a global subsurface ocean and a rocky core. This was the first indication that the moon can boast active geochemical below the surface, most likely between water and rocks in hydrothermal vents.

The presence of hydrogen was also grounds for great enthusiasm at NASA — the element is a known source of chemical energy for microbes living in hydrothermal vents here on good ol’ Earth.

    “Once you have identified a potential food source for microbes, the next question to ask is ‘what is the nature of the complex organics in the ocean?'” says SwRI’s Dr. Hunter Waite, INMS principal investigator and paper coauthor. “This paper represents the first step in that understanding — complexity in the organic chemistry beyond our expectations!”

The findings are significant enough to influence further exploration, Glen believes. Any spacecraft that flies towards Enceladus in the future should make a point of going through its plume to analyze these complex organic molecules with a high-resolution mass spectrometer to “help us determine how they were made.”

    “We must be cautious, but it is exciting to ponder that this finding indicates that the biological synthesis of organic molecules on Enceladus is possible.”

The paper “Macromolecular organic compounds from the depths of Enceladus” has been published in the journal Nature.

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« Reply #1720 on: Jun 30, 2018, 05:16 AM »

HAL-like robot to help astronaut in space odyssey

Reuters
30 Jun 2018 at 06:23 ET   

A science fiction-inspired robot hardwired to assist astronauts will launch from Florida early Friday morning to become the first personal, artificial intelligence-powered companion in space.

The Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, or CIMON, is an English-speaking droid roughly the size of a basketball that will help German astronaut Alexander Gerst conduct experiments on the International Space Station.

“What we’re trying to do with CIMON is to increase the efficiency of the astronaut,” Matthias Biniok, an engineer for chip maker IBM and one of the lead architects behind CIMON’s artificial intelligence, told Reuters.

CIMON will verbally communicate step-by-step instructions to Gerst during three planned science experiments on the space station’s European module. Currently, astronauts read these instructions from a laptop, which Biniok says is an arduous process that a responsive, hands-free companion like CIMON can replace.

“Right now our main mission is to support the astronauts with their daily tasks to save time, because time is the most valuable and most expensive thing on the ISS,” Biniok said.

SCIENCE FICTION COMIC

The German Aerospace Center plans for CIMON to undergo three one-hour sessions to demonstrate how well the robot can help with experiments, like a crystal growth study, a test for its eight on-board cameras and an exercise to help Gerst solve a Rubik’s cube.

CIMON will return to Earth on Dec. 13.

Biniok said the concept of CIMON was inspired by a 1940s science fiction comic series set in space, where a sentient, brain-shaped robot named Professor Simon mentors an astronaut named Captain Future.

Philipp Schulien, a German engineer for CIMON’s hardware contractor, Airbus, said extending astronauts’ abilities in space is imperative for future space exploration journeys, like the crewed missions to Mars that are scheduled to take off as early as 2020.

“There are certain effects that might appear during long-term missions like the so-called groupthink effect,” Schulien said, citing a behavioral phenomenon in which humans that spend lengthy periods of time in isolation are driven to make irrational decisions. “Long, isolated groups tend to stop communicating with the ground,” he said.

A robot like CIMON with human-like personalities could help mitigate the disorientation astronauts may feel in space, Schulien said.

CIMON is among 5,900 pounds of cargo launching to the International Space Station on Friday, atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Reporting by Joey Roulette; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler

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« Reply #1721 on: Jul 02, 2018, 04:18 AM »

Astronomers capture first images of an exoplanet forming

July 2nd, 2018
ZME

Researchers led by a group at the Max Plank Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, are spying on a baby planet. The object of their attention is a still-forming planet that orbits around PDS 70, a young dwarf star. This is the first time we’ve captured clear images of a forming planet and its travels through the dust cloud surrounding young stars.

Far-away spheres

The images were captured using the SPHERE instrument installed on Unit Telescope 3 of the European Southern Observatory (ESO’s) Very Large Telescope (VTL) array in Chile. SPHERE, the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument, is one of the most powerful planet-finding tools astronomers have at their disposal today. What makes SPHERE stand out in the field of exoplanet exploration is that, unlike the majority of its contenders, it relies on direct imaging — SPHERE takes actual photographs of planets millions or billions of kilometers away.

SPHERE relies on a technique known as high-contrast imaging to produce such amazing shots. The device uses complex observation techniques and powerful data processing algorithms to tease out the faint traces of light incoming from planets around bright stars. Astronomers draw on the Earth’s rotation to help them better observe such planets — SPHERE continuously takes images of the star over a period of several hours, while keeping the instrument as stable as possible. This creates images of a certain planet taken from slightly different angles and at different points in the stellar halo, giving the impression that it’s slowly rotating or moving about. The stellar halo, meanwhile, appears immobile. The last step is to combine all the images and filter out all the parts that do not appear to move — blocking out signals that don’t originate from the planet itself.

The new planet, christened PDS 70b, stands out very clearly in the images SPHERE recorded. It appears as a bright point to the right of that blackened blob in the middle of the image. That blob is a coronagraph — a mask that researchers apply directly onto the star, lest its light blocks out everything else in the image.

PDS 70b is a gas giant with a mass several times that of Jupiter. It’s about as far from its host star as Uranus is to the Sun. Currently, PDS 70d is busy carving a path through the planet-forming material surrounding the young star, the researchers note, making it instantly stand out.

    “These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them,” explains Miriam Keppler, who lead the team behind the discovery of PDS 70’s still-forming planet. “The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.”

PDS 70d is already drawing a lot of attention from astronomers. A second paper, which Keppler also co-authored, has followed-up on the initial observations with a few months of study. The data from SPHERE also allowed the team to measure the planet’s brightness over different wavelengths — based on which they estimated the properties of its atmosphere. The planet is blanketed in thick clouds, the team explained, and its surface is currently revolving around a crisp 1000°C (1832°F), which is much hotter than any planet in the Solar System.

The findings also helped researchers make heads and tails of a structure known as a transition disc. This is a ring-like protoplanetary (meaning it is involved in early planetary formation) structure. Transitional disks roughly resemble a stadium, with a clean area in the middle (from which planets drew their matter), surrounded by a ring of dust and gas. While these gaps have been known for several decades now and speculated to be produced by the interaction between forming planets and its host star’s disk, this is the first time we’ve actually seen them.

    “These objects represent […] disks whose inner regions are relatively devoid of distributed matter, although the outer regions still contain substantial amounts of dust,” explains a paper published by Strom et al. in 1989.

All this data helps flesh out our understanding of the early stages of planetary evolution — which are quite complex and, up to now, “poorly-understood”, according to André Müller, leader of the second team to investigate the young planet.

    “We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation,” he explains.

The findings further help improve our overall knowledge of how planets form. By determining PDS 70d’s atmospheric and physical properties, astronomers now have a reliable data point from which to extrapolate — which will help improve the accuracy of our planetary formation models.

Not bad for a bunch of photographs.

The first paper, “Discovery of a planetary-mass companion within the gap of the transition disk around PDS 70” has been published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The second paper, “Orbital and atmospheric characterization of the planet within the gap of the PDS 70 transition disk,” has also been published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics


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« Reply #1722 on: Jul 03, 2018, 04:13 AM »


July Astronomical Highlights: Five Planets and a Micromoon

By Kelly Kizer Whitt
Ecowatch
7/3/2018

Known since ancient times, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can normally all be seen with the naked eye. Greeks called them "wandering stars" or "asteres planetai." This July, all five move into positions that make for optimal viewing.

Start looking west just after sunset. Venus will be the first object to stand out in the fading twilight, shining brilliantly as it sinks toward the horizon. Look to the lower right of Venus to spot Mercury, which will be even closer to the horizon than Venus.

From July 3 to 4, Mercury passes through the Beehive Cluster. On July 9 and 10, Venus skims the top of Regulus in the constellation Leo. Bag these two planets early in the evening because they will set as the rest of the planets shift across the sky, first rising in the east and then gliding above the southern horizon. On July 14, the crescent moon is near Mercury, and the next night it sidles up to Venus.

Look for Jupiter as it gets dark—the red giant will be halfway between rising and setting, closest to the south. Jupiter and the moon hang out on July 20. Usually Jupiter is the second-brightest planet in the night sky, but this month Mars is so close and bright it sneaks into second place. However, it doesn't rise until Mercury and Venus are setting.

You'll find Saturn in the southeast, drifting through the thickest part of the Milky Way Galaxy. Use binoculars or a telescope to see its rings and search the region for deep-sky delights. If you don't have binoculars or a telescope, look at the stretch of the Milky Way below Saturn and see if you can make out the Great Rift, a dark area created by thick clouds of gas and dust that blocks the stars behind it from shining through. Saturn and the moon keep company on July 24.

Lastly, Mars will be rising in the south-southeast just as Mercury disappears on the opposite side of the sky. Mars' close proximity to Earth right now makes it appear especially large and bright, although with your eyes alone, Mars will still mostly look like a reddish-orange dot. The planet reaches opposition July 27 just a few hours before the full moon. At that time, the moon also happens to be at apogee, or its farthest point in its orbit around Earth. This is the opposite of a supermoon, and it's sometimes called a micromoon. Many casual observers can't tell the difference between these variations in full moon sizes, but a micromoon can look up to 14 percent smaller than a supermoon.

Earth reaches aphelion, its farthest point from the sun, on July 6 at 9:47 a.m. PDT. Even though in North America we're farthest from the sun at this time of year, we experience some of the warmest temperatures, because the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, and we receive more direct rays and longer hours of sunlight.

Both a total lunar eclipse and partial solar eclipse occur in July, though neither within range of the Western Hemisphere. The total lunar eclipse on July 27 will darken the moon in India, Africa and Europe. The partial solar eclipse on July 13 will only be visible for those in the Southern Ocean, south of Australia.


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« Reply #1723 on: Jul 04, 2018, 04:18 AM »

Uranus may have collided with a cosmic body twice the size of Earth, explaining its unusual tilt

ZME
7/4/2018

A cataclysmic collision with an enormous cosmic body twice the size of Earth may have caused Uranus to tilt and could explain its freezing temperatures.

The collision with Uranus of a massive object twice the size of Earth caused the planet's unusual spin.

Uranus’ spins on its side, its axis pointing almost at right angles relative to all the other planets in our solar system. This behavior suggests that the planet almost certainly got knocked over by some giant impact, so the real questions astronomers have been asking are how all of this panned out and how else such a violent impact affected the planet.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjBYis4rJzg

Jacob Kegerreis and colleagues at Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology performed over 50 different high-resolution computer simulations of massive collisions with the gas giant in order to answer these questions.

The conditions that lead to outcomes that most closely resemble what Uranus is doing right now suggest that the planet was most likely impacted by a young proto-planet mode of rock and ice during the solar system’s chaotic formation about 4 billion years ago. Since Uranus is so massive — it has about 14 times the mass of Earth and is around four times larger in radius — whatever hit the planet was huge, and scientists think it used to be between two and three Earth-masses.

According to the same simulations, the impact could have also released debris that formed a thin shell around the edge of the planet’s ice layer, trapping heat emanating from the planet’s core. This can partly explain Uranus’ ungodly cold temperature in the outer atmosphere, which averages around -216 degrees Celsius (-357 degrees Fahrenheit). Some of Uranus’ 27 moons — including 13 so-called ‘inner moons’ — might have formed as a result of the spewed debris.

    “Our findings confirm that the most likely outcome was that the young Uranus was involved in a cataclysmic collision with an object twice the mass of Earth, if not larger, knocking it on to its side and setting in process the events that helped create the planet we see today,” Kegerreis said in a statement.

The collision wasn’t head-on. The cosmic body grazed Uranus instead, allowing the planet to retain the majority of its atmosphere. However, it was enough to affect the planet’s tilt.

The impact could have created molten ice and lopsided lumps of rock inside the planet, explaining not only Uranus’ excentric tilt but also its off-center magnetic field.

Such planetary collisions, dramatic as they may sound, used to be quite common in the early solar system. Earth’s moon, for instance, is thought to have formed following a violent impact with a Mars-sized body.

Besides helping astronomers better their understanding of Uranus, the new study might also offer valuable clues as to how planets outside the solar system — called exoplanets — form and evolve.

The findings appeared in the Astrophysical Journal.


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« Reply #1724 on: Jul 05, 2018, 04:54 AM »

Wind power could be harvested on Mars — and this might be a game changer

ZME
7/6/2018

A new study has shown that wind energy can be harvested on Mars, despite the Red Planet’s extremely thin atmosphere and hellish sandstorms.

In this artist’s illustration, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander begins to shut down operations as the sunless winter sets in. Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona.
Black sails for red sands

If we are to have a manned mission to Mars, energy is of the essence. In most cases, you’d rely on energy from the Sun, but that’s not possible in all areas on Mars — this is where wind energy steps in.

    “The optimal locations for this type of power production are areas where the sun doesn’t always shine, but winds will blow, such as latitudes poleward of the polar circles,” the researchers wrote.

The problem is that the atmosphere on Mars isn’t really wind-friendly. For one, it only averages about 0.6% of Earth’s mean sea level pressure, which makes it incomparably thinner. Secondly, the atmosphere also hosts devilish sandstorms, which can be devastating for equipment.

But now, researchers have shown that even in these unfavorable conditions, wind energy can be harvested.

Blowing in the wind

    “For now, we can say for the first time and with certainty, that, YES, you can use wind power on Mars!” the researchers, led by Christina Holstein-Rathlou of Boston University’s Center for Space Physics, wrote in the study.

Image Credits: Holstein-Rathlou et. al.

Along with her colleagues, Holstein-Rathlou carried out simulations at the Wind Tunnel Simulator II, located in Aarhus, Denmark. The tests first started out in 2010 but were only recently presented at the Mars Workshop on Amazonian and Present Day Climate in Lakewood, CO last week.

If researchers want to send missions to the polar areas of Mars, standard power sources wouldn’t work well. For once, the missions wouldn’t have access to sunlight about half of the year, and the heat expunged by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (the device that powers NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover and many other deep-space explorers) would significantly impede some science experiments. So researchers are considering having a wind turbine which they would use in conjunction to solar panels. The energy would be stored in customized batteries and used whenever necessary.

    “The optimal locations for this type of power production are areas where the sun doesn’t always shine, but winds will blow, such as latitudes poleward of the polar circles,” the researchers write.

This extra source of energy could also allow Mars landers to be larger in size. Previously, energy has been a critical limitation in the size and capabilities of rovers and landers. A suite of studies are still required before turbine-toting probes are ready to launch toward Mars, the team stressed, but these are definitely encouraging results, which pave the way for new avenues of Martian missions.


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